The 1980s Were Great, Just Not for Business Computers, Apparently
March 11, 2019 Alex Woodie
Looking back, it’s plainly obvious that the 1980s were nothing short of awesome. It gave us the Space Shuttle, Van Halen, the fall of Communism, and the Dodge Caravan. The Internet went global, Star Wars went viral, and Super Mario introduced a generation of Generation Xers to video games. But apparently, when it comes to business computers, the decade was nothing sort of dreadful.
At least that’s what we’re to believe from a recent Bloomberg Businessweek article titled America’s Cities Are Running on Software From the 1980s, published February 28. The story laments the travails of the City (and County) of San Francisco, which runs its property tax assessment operation on – you guessed it – “a Cobol-based system called AS-400.”
The Bloomberg author describes the ordeal that San Francisco city workers must go through to make it work:
“City employees appraising the market work with software that runs on a dead programming language and can’t be used with a mouse. Assessors are prone to make mistakes when using the vintage software because it can’t display all the basic information for a given property on one screen. The staffers have to open and exit several menus to input stuff as simple as addresses.”
The idea that a city as modern as San Francisco – the center of technological brilliance and the ecosystem of the new data-driven economy, don’t you know – relies on “software from the 1980s” to run its core operations must strike some as a jarring juxtaposition. After all, today’s techno-elites in trendy South of Market warehouses are working on stuff that’s way more impactful than property tax calculations. They are the kings and queens of market disruption, killers of the tired old industries, and the overseers of the new data-based economy. Who has time for stodgy old green screen interfaces? (Actually, they may be wondering what is a greenscreen interface.)
But once you unpack any San Francisco-centered tech bias that may have crept into your synapses, you realize that the city (and county) of San Francisco really isn’t that much different than many of the thousands of other local governments and municipalities around North America that are running on “AS-400s” and other standard-bearers of an earlier technological age.
Readers of this newsletter may read the Bloomberg piece and feel some sort of connection. There are many older software packages out there running on the IBM i server (the AS/400 name, of course, hasn’t been used since 2000). Many of these RPG and COBOL-based applications haven’t been updated in decades, even if the underlying hardware and operating system from IBM is less than a year old.
The problem isn’t so much the platform, but the applications that run on it. Yes, IBM is guilty for this sin, in so far as it allows software from (technology trigger alert) the 1970s to run on today’s uber-powerful Power9 processors. Perhaps it should have forced its customers and business partners to upgrade their code as a condition for being allowed the privilege to run on its esteemed platform, as Microsoft did when upgrading its Windows OS. If IBM had taken a more heavy-handed approach, then perhaps then we wouldn’t have this problem. (In fact, if IBM had done, we probably wouldn’t even have the IBM i to kick around anymore.)
The Bloomberg piece touches on some of this reality. The idiosyncrasies described in the story – such as the need to enter street numbers in four-digit blocks, even if it’s only a three digit address; the inability to search by addresses (only tax identification numbers); the need to scroll multiple screens to get the needed information – will resonate with users who have worked with the systems, and developers who long for the resources needed for a full-bore modernization project.
Today’s consumer takes an awful lot for granted, and to some degree, there’s nothing wrong with that. After all, it’s their fickleness that separates the winners form the losers in the rough-and-tumble technology world. App developers and website creators fight to build the most intuitive, easiest-to-use, and best mobile apps and websites that deliver all manner of information and services. A hearty “thank you” is due to all of the folks who have had a hand in transforming the Internet from the clunky Bulletin Board System of the 1980s into the fast, sleek thing of beauty that it is today.
But behind all the glitz and glamor of consumer apps lurks the world of backoffice apps, like the ones powering the San Francisco Assessors Office, which is in the process of upgrading some of its systems to a Salesforce-based system from Sapient. If the migration, due to be completed in 2022, resembles so many others in the private and public sectors, The City will realize not only how poorly documented the old system is, and how many of its existing features don’t translate readily into the new system, forcing change orders and expensive modifications that, in the end, will delay the rollout by months if not years and force the project to go over budget.
Yes, older applications are deficient in some ways, which isn’t really surprising if you generally believe that most things – including technology – get better with time. Having a feature like being able to search for a property based on street address and not on APN just makes sense, and so naturally you’d expect a new system to include that feature. Having a system that automatically flags attempts to enter invalid data would be nice. Being able to point and click using a mouse, instead of navigating through menus using function keys, is a mark of improvement.
(However, some of the complaints in the Bloomberg article are outlandish. For example, the story calls the system to task for not “flag[ging] data entry mistakes, such as if a worker misidentified 301 Grove St. as 0031 Grove St.” Well, how would a computer know that the employee didn’t actually mean 31 Grove St.? We tell the computers what we want, not the other way around. So if we tell the computer something that’s wrong, it’s not the computers’ fault for acting upon it. Garbage in, garbage out is alive and well.)
The solution inevitably comes down to money. With enough resources, the city of San Francisco will be able to solve its problem, whether it’s moving to a new system that has the needed business process automation or upgrading the existing system. But money is tight, and the reality is that even IT departments in rich locales like San Francisco are under financial pressure to do more with less.
“We’re dealing with an irrational public who wants greater and greater service delivery at the same time they want their taxes to be lower,” Bloomberg quotes Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute, an association for municipal tech officials, as saying.
The truth is that the technological improvements that San Francisco Assessor’s Office rightly demands are not incompatible with “the COBOL-based system called AS-400” (well, you probably wouldn’t want to do it in COBOL, but you probably could, if you wanted to). The IBM i platform, as the AS/400 is known today, is capable of running modern applications that sport any of the features you might find with Salesforce. It also runs the latest ERP systems from Oracle and SAP, among many others.
The folks in the IBM i community have heard it all before. They have to fight perceptions of the box as an outdated dinosaur “from the 1980s,” and they don’t always have the right ammo to do it. Stories in the popular press that denigrate the IBM i server based solely on the year that its predecessor system debuted don’t help the cause (luckily they’re not aware of the System/3X). The platform has a tough, uphill battle to fight as it is, but unfortunately this type of technology ageism is rampant in an age when consumers are trained to purchase new smartphones every year.
The AS/400 was revolutionary when it debuted, and since then the IBM midrange system has continued to display strong traits like resilience, security, scalability, and backward compatibility. It has Borg’d more technologies than all of the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. These separated the AS/400 from most of its contemporaries, and there are few platforms that can match them in today’s IBM i platform.